Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Steamworks: Not Just Blowing Smoke

A year of living in Durango (a year? really? no way it's been that long! we moved here October 2012 and now it's...uh...wait, what day is it?) has given us plenty of reasons to celebrate, and in retrospect, I realize that many of those celebrations ended up at Steamworks Brewing Co. on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 8th Street. (How could we not, though? The Steamer's master brewers, Spencer and Ken, are Certified Cicerones! And no, that does not have anything to do with Italian food. It means they are to craft beer what a sommeliers are to fine wine! E.x.p.e.r.t.s. And they've got their beertenders and servers training to be experts, too! In short, these guys know what they're doing.)

The day we moved in, the Steamer was our first stop after dropping off the U-Haul. We capped a celebration of life and beauty and random happenstance in the dead of winter by being adventurous in our beer choices. Two of our dear friends escaped Albuquerque in order to raise Steamworks glasses to their new endeavor, the New Mexico Mercury, and to our own contributions to the online meeting-of-the-minds. And we've gone there to celebrate a year of supporting ourselves as writers, editors, and teachers, which is to say, to a year of working in our pajamas any time we so choose (like right now).

Also, when crispness is in the air, and it's both autumn and winter at the same time (you mean like in our apartment...cuz you keep the thermostat set at "Antarctica" while I crank the space heater up to "Bahamas"?), you just have to get out and enjoy it. (Y-y-yeah, g-g-get out-t-t there, f-f-f-folks!)

Outside our front door last Thursday.

So today, we escaped for an autumnal walk around the residential side of downtown and a bite n' sip at Steamworks.

The obvious choice of brew was the Slam Dunkel, which took home the gold medal for German-style wheat ales from the Great American Beer Festival. Alas, the Slam Dunkel had already won the gold medal that counts: it was so popular with locals that Steamworks ran it dry two days before it won the Brew-lympics. (The poor bartender had to wait around a while as we collapsed prostrate on the peanut-shelled floor and cry out: Noooooooo! Not fair! Waaaaahhhh!)

Our secondary choices were hardly consolation prizes. This barfly buzzed around a pint of Colorado Proud, which earns my personal gold medal, as just about the most drinkable IPA ever. (Like Ever ever? In the history of ever? Wow.) 

Imagine if you could eat your whole sack of Halloween candy without puking, and then tackle your little sister's, too. It tastes floral but not sweet, sharp but not bitter. I'm sure some self-proclaimed hopheads would scoff at its wimpiness, but I would point the finger right back and say they are insecure in their masculinity. (Even the lady hopheads.) (I pretty much agree on this one. The Colorado Proud is the most gentlemanly I.P.A. I've ever come across. The kind that holds doors open, or drapes its coat over puddles so ladies may ambulate without soiling their slippers! It is pride without prejudice. It is genteel. Rather than bitter, tongue-walloping hop, I tasted a bit of buttery tang. And I liked it!) 

See? The most dapper gentleman can wear a flower in his lapel without feeling threatened.

Oh, and the Colorado Proud is made of all locally grown ingredients. Chalk one up for the home team!

(Although I liked my sample of CO Proud, I did not order it because there was a barleywine on the menu! So, I ordered the "17," which tasted deliciously thick with quenching, succulent plums, but rich like a good fall cider. Its scent was slightly oak-y, like an old forest just after a drenching rain. And that is probably why I will always like barleywines. They a transportational beverages, capable of whisking back in time or through the portals between dimensions. One moment you're in Durango's Steamworks, and the next, you're basking in Sherwood Forest!) 

We sipped our steam-beers, while an employee brought out the Slam Dunkel's gold medal. He hung it off some pipe near the cash register, but I hollered that we couldn't see it from there. So, he draped it across the chalkboard beer menu. Applause bubbled up, boisterous enough to embarrass the fellow, then that was it. No ceremony or fuss. Back to beers-ness as usual. Which, honestly, is enough to celebrate right there.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Over the River and Through the Woods...A Drinkin' We Will Go

As seasoned brew-hunters, Zach and I know full well that not every beer we try is going to be awesome, or blow-your-hair-back, or taste bud-dazzling, or even just delicious. We know that brewers are artisans. They experiment with recipes and take risks with ingredients. It's a different take on experimental substances. Their aim is not to craft a reasonable beer that everyone can chug, because beers like that often lack anything approaching "taste."

Writing is a lot like that, too. Not every book on the shelf will blow your hair back and, often enough, the ones advertisers tell you that everyone likes are too watered down to be worth the read. Some writers experiment to the point of incomprehension (think James Joyce), while others push the boundaries only enough to make them zing (think Raymond Chandler).

So, when we find a beer that doesn't quite delight (but tries), we don't slam it. We tell you potential tasters what we tasted (as accurately as possible) so you'll know what to expect when the barkeep slides the suds your way. In other words, we seek the malty high ground. Sometimes quite literally. Like when our drink expectations fell a little flat in Burlington, we took off to tromp the peaks of the Green Mountains, where they intersect with the Appalachian Trail!

Hiking (a very small segment of) the AT had become a bit of an obsession for us after reading Bill Bryson's hysterical narrative A Walk in the Woods. Bryson's misadventures just prep-shopping for a hike on the AT were as side-splitting as his written renderings of the forests were startling and vivid. He made us want to be there.

And suddenly, we were. Old wood forests dense with ragged trunks, fractal branches, and coil-coy ferns. Shadows splotched everywhere, shrouding the sources of tick-and-bibble noises.

We moved through the woods and pressed into a reverent silence. Our path broke at a pond. Once again, language proved muddy, because what are evidently ponds in New England, we know as lakes in the Southwest. We snacked on a simple lunch and listened to the trees applaud the coming rainstorm.

Sheets of silver slickness surrounded us. Protected by our Irish-weather-proof coats, we splunch-and-squished our way back to the trail head. While maneuvering across a tumble-down patch of boulders, I slipped and fell, turning my backside biscuits to pancakes. No severe injuries, save for the bruising that would surface later, but I was definitely "bummed" to end our trek that way. Zach resolved to get me back to town and to a beer.

We returned to Burlington and cleaned up. Then we struck out for downtown's pedestrian-only Church Street. This delightful, brick-paved path was a quarter-mile facsimile of most downtown districts in Europe, where cars are curbed far away and only the fortified-footers may roam.

Since it was still too early to eat, we stopped in at the Church St. Tavern and ordered a pair of Otter Creek Lager. Otter Creek hails from Middlebury, Vermont, and makes plenty of beers I enjoyed on past visits to Vermont. We'd passed the turn-off to the Otter Creek Brewery while driving back from the AT, far too stinky and sodden to enjoy a beer properly. So this stop made up for the earlier miss. This particular mellow-gold liquid fits the light-bright, clean and refreshing mold of its European Pislner forbears, but adds an odd and enjoyable twist. The sniffer picks up on malty, bready, sweet aromas while the tongue -- marigolds. Then the brain says, "Hey, dummy, were you eating marigolds while I wasn't looking?"

But that's the quirk of this particular beer. It's floral-bitter and citrus-sweet. It's like dining on marmalade-glazed toast next to a big bouquet of flowers. And then you take another drink because your senses are so tangled, you think another sip will untie the knot. But it doesn't. The second sip goes like like the first: yum!

When the sun set, we set off  in search of food. We came upon Ken's Pizza & Sub which had a busy, traditional Italian-styled patio dining area up front and an oddly configured tiki lounge off the side. Opting for the tiki lounge -- opting, in that the tiki lounge is where the available tables were -- we sidled up to a tall table and ordered a pizza and -- what else -- beer. While we waited for our order to arrive, we noticed the tiki lounge played nothing but Jimmy Buffet. And I realized that I somehow know ALL THE WORDS TO ALL THE SONGS. What subliminal mind-warping did my parents put me through?

About the time we started worrying we were gonna catch a bad case of crabs (there are no virgin margaritas in Margaritaville, and you know what they say about what goes around), our drinks arrived. We shared a Rockart Ridgerunner Barleywine and a Switchback Ale. I've posted on the Ridgerunner before, so I'll let Zach have a crack at it here.


Oy, you want more of a crack than that? Well, this beer is done right -- it's not one of those "A for effort" beers Jenny talks about above. Aside from the out-of-place Kokopelli on the bottle, everything in this beer hits your senses where it counts. It bore its sweetness on a litter of complex hop and malt flavors that some might call "bitter" but I found intriguing. I can't say this brew is balanced, because that would discredit its richness, its not-quite-smokiness, and its evolving character as it warms. Kokopelli is the god of fertility, and I would believe that the Ridgerunner has begot more than one young Vermonter.

As for the Switchback, I will say that it was good. It comes cloudy and unfiltered and blushing like a virgin. The Switchback brewers mix a lot of malts into this recipe, resulting in a taste that some might call "complex," but I would say is more like "multiple-personality-disorder." First taste sweet-wheaty, next taste bitter-rye, with a bland, white bread wash-down. Texturally, this beer makes an impression on your mouth. Dry like a wine, it almost peels the paint, so swallow fast.

Whazzat? I's still sipping my... my... balls, who drank all 'e Ridgenunner?

When our bellies were full and our pint glasses were empty, we left Jimmy Buffet in Margaritaville. We took a stroll down to the waterfront and drank in more of the nighttime breezes blowing in off Lake Champlain. We watched the metallic slither of light on the water surface and thought back on own amazing walk in the woods. Then we thought forward on our future path as writers, a trail we hike every day.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Swampy Sippins

Well, I finally did it!

I finally graduated and got my MFA! All it took was two years, [more than we care to admit] in student loans, 20 packets of work consisting of 750,000 words written, and over 250 books read.

And what better way to celebrate the culmination of all that work than to take a hike with my beloved Zach and my parents through a boggy, bug-filled swamp! It was *almost* Canada!

Okay, we didn't set out to hike through a swamp. We looked at a map of Vermont (where my grad program is located) and saw there was a wild bird preserve about two hours north of our B&B. Two hours is a no-time drive for desert dwellers like us, who are used to driving two hours or more to work every day -- not to mention 4 hours to a dentist or go bulk-shopping at the nearest wholesale store. I, Zach, am not included in this "us." To me, a place as close as Rio Rancho is too far to drive for ANYTHING. And it's only four hours away during rush hour.

As it turns out, "wild bird preserve" in Vermont actually translates into "mosquito-infested bog land."

No problem. Zach and I had already stopped by a pharmacy to pick up some bug spray. Mom and Dad said to get something with DEET in it. But I'm not into salving aerosol poison on my skin. No, sirree. Instead, we found a brand sporting a natural pheromone guaranteed to make the bugs pinch their noses and fly far away.

With our pest-repellent force field applied, we bravely forged the puddles forming the hiking loop around the preserve. We swatted bugs until our arms were sore. We doused each other with more and more bug spray, but it was no good. That pheromone must have been some kind of hubba-hubba bug perfume because those mosquitoes and black flies harassed us until hour skin looked like bubble wrap! Mine didn't. Not that I'm saying neener-neener. 

Okay, I am saying neener-neener. 

After surviving swamplandia, Mom, Dad, Zach and I sought refuge at the Vermont Pub & Brewery. We were super excited to visit this particular brewpub because its founder, Greg Noonan, is a kind of godfather to American microbrewing. His 1986 book, Brewing Lager Beers, was one of the early textbooks for home brewers. He opened the VPB in 1988 and ran it until his death in 2009.

The day was sunny and the humidity was mild, so when we arrived at the large, brick-slathered corner building, we asked to sit on the patio. Lucky us: a local jazz band was setting up for a gig. Unluckily for us, we got the waitress who felt serving up grub 'n' suds was beneath her ambitions.

When lil' miss I-hate-my-bar-apron finally stopped by the table, Mom and Dad got some local hard ciders and Zach ordered the Grand Slam Baseball Beer. Just seeing it on the menu made us think of Isoptopes Amber -- the best ballpark beer in the world! And I was feeling in quite the baseball mood, let me tell you. I had just watched three Kansas City Royals in the same All-Star game for the first time since the late '80s -- and they were all on the diamond at the same time. This, not entirely coincidentally, has led to my first taste of a pennant race since I was old enough to understand that I would never understand the infield fly rule.

The menu touts the Grand Slam as a light-bodied American pale ale. I took that to mean: not quite as in-your-face as a strong IPA, but a foundation of flavor you could build your stadium on. And... well, the emphasis was on "light-bodied." The brew didn't do anything special; it wasn't watery, but it wasn't rich. It had all the right components, but not in any way that made you sit back and sigh. Like watching a Little League contest: the love of the game was there, the know-how was mostly present, but it just wasn't executed as beautifully as a major-league double play. I'm glad I tasted it, but I wouldn't go back for the second half of a doubleheader. 

I ordered the house Weissebier: the Beetlejuice. (I guess I hadn't had enough bugs out on the trail). Honestly, I was attracted to the menu description of the Beetle where its subtle banana and clove flavors were touted. Just thinking about that odd yet magical combination whisked me nostalgically away to the Franciscan Well in Co. Cork, Ireland, with its banana-y...clove-y...bubblegummy...Friar Weisse! Ssssttthhooo delissshhhuttthhh!

Oopsstthhh! Ssstthhhorry, I'm drooling again. Well, one sip of the Beetlejuice was enough for me to know that "subtle" in Vermont translates about as well as "wild bird preserve." This beer was a banana-bananza! It unified all banana splits around the world! By the time I finished it, I had Gwen Stefani's Ain't No Holla Back Girl stuck in my head (It's bananas! B-AN-AN-AS!) Too bad the waitress weren't no holla back girl, either. I might have been able to try another of VPB's beers. But our meal was done and the jazz band had played their last song of the afternoon. So we departed from Vermont Pub & Brewery a bit disappointed and underwhelmed by the overall experience. Cheers to the jazz band for elevating our time as high as they did!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Royal Loggers

"Everyone to the Palace!"

And so it was that the merry revelers sallied forth to yon Palace for much mirth and festivity.

No, you have not just stumbled on to some weird fairy tale blog. That's actually what happened a few nights ago after my friend successfully passed his 1st kyu test in aikido. On a technical scale, the test was darn-near perfect. Well, on all other scales, it was darn-near perfect, too. There was extra high praise for the paired weapons demos involving none other than yours truly.

Test participants and audience members all made their way to The Palace for some late-night drinks, appetizers, and general good times. If I ever join the military, I want to be in HIS platoon.

Now, The Palace is probably the third restaurant Zach and I have been to in Durango. We're often a.) too frugal to eat out, b.) too busy, or c.) too pragmatic to go anywhere other than one or another favorite suds-sippin or food-munchin' spot (like Steamworks or Home Slice). d) We make some rockin' food ourselves, and e) we know how to cook it without inducing nasty crease-crinklers afterwards.

The Palace was not as palatial as the name suggested. It looked more like a good-time saloon, with dark wood paneling, stained glass hanging lamp shades, and sturdy, basic chairs and tables. But the juxtaposition of name and setting did not prevent the ensuing hootenanny!

Along with a shared plate of gnocci (no-chi? no-ki? nyo-gki?), Zach and I asked to hear a rundown of the local beers on tap. The waitress responded: Ska. We're not trying to curry favor with only the one brewer, honest. The Palace simply didn't have any other local choices. Not that we're complaining. We are NOT complaining. Ska's beers are yummerlicious! Remaining your staunch artisan advocates (avid craftbeer "sipporters"), we both went for a pint of seasonal Mexican Logger.

Yes, you read that right. Logger instead of lager. It had to be the cleverest pun I had ever seen. That's saying something because I'm a devoted pun-master who had never once made that whimsical, linguistical flip. Liar. We came up with at least a dozen better puns that night we stayed up, punning all fifty state names.

We toasted (and roasted) the successful, new 1st kyu seated at the head of the table, and then we took our first slurps of the logger lager. My tongue's first thought was: bashful beer, but then as the liquid spread through my mouth, I got a big yummy dose of lager toasty nuttiness.

This beer reminded me that Mexican-style lagers really are the children of European-style pilsners. Tingly and zingy, with rich yeastiness. A whiff of nuttiness on the exhale. I have to agree with Jenny that the taste here is a bit timid up front. The rest of the Logger experience makes you quickly view that first encounter with friendly remembrance, though. This is a quality summer brew. Inferior beers require a lime to add some pizzazz, but this one? Not so much. It's become my crusade to teach local waitstaff and barkeeps to ditch the fruit.

In the end, Zach and I wound up giving the Mexican Logger a five-chain, top rating! Sure, we risk looking like a couple of kiss-axes, always praising Ska. But can we help it if those west slope brewers "saw" the right way to craft the perfect summer sipper? Caution: reader should wear protective eyewear. Such sharp wit may become dislodged and sent airborne!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Be More Pagan

For the first time in months -- and I mean "months" without any undue authorial exaggeration -- Zach and I had a Saturday. A weekend day kind of day. Sort of.

We had to get up early, which goes against the usual Saturday doctrine of sleeping in and shambling about in house slippers and pajamas til four or five in the afternoon. But, I have aikido practice every Saturday and one of my classmates is prepping for a 1st kyu test, which is one step below black belt -- shodan -- and a very very very Big Deal. Like anyone on the mat the day of the test, I'll be there and a part of the demonstration, getting pinned and thrown and rolled and flipped. I've also been asked to be a demonstration partner for paired weapons demonstrations, or katas. These take a ton of practice with the sword (bokkend) and the jo (long wooden staff) and in some ways, I need to be better than the tester so I don't embarrass him. But again, just being asked is another very very very Big Deal.

So that was my morning.

Zach morning involved a bike ride. Okay, a Herculean bike ride! Zach has been prepping and training to ride in the annual Iron Horse bike tour, which spans 50 miles from Durango to Silverton. On a bike. Over two mountains. Uphill. Up like 6,000 feet of hill, in fact! And yes, as you might have guessed, this too, is a very very very Big Deal. Prior to when training started back in October, Zach had hardly been on a bike since he was less than four feet tall. And while he has always battled an antagonistic sciatic nerve, he also survived a bad car wreck before we went to Ireland. His recovery inspired both of us to be as healthy as possible (without giving up the good stuff in life, like food and beer) so that we live as long as possible doing all the things we enjoy doing! And back in October, when we moved to Durango, it seemed perfectly logical to have Zach get in excellent shape by riding the Iron Horse with his dad -- whose age also spans over fifty, but who has successfully completed the Iron Horse three times, along with other death-defying bike races gruesomely named things like Triple By-Pass or Death Ride.

Okay, so we did our very very very Big Deal things in the morning. I came home from aikido and Zach slogged back from his bike ride. Now, what normally happens at this point on Saturdays is that we shower and sink behind our laptops where there is always work awaiting to be done. We look up some time after the sun has gone down and we resolve to eat some kind of dinner before going to bed, knowing full well that more work awaits us on Sundays.

But on this day, we did not do that.

Gleefully, and out of breath, Zach announced that he had successfully tackled the monster climb up to Coal Bank, the first of the two mountains on the trek. We were so ecstatic!

We saw the golden sun filling up our valley, like honey on gingerbread. We saw sugary blossoms and trembling baby aspen leaves. We saw wayward silk threads flung from traveling spiders. We saw spring and joy and mirth everywhere. And we did what people used to do after a season of  dark, cold toil: we celebrated! We ran to the store and bought a fresh batch of brew and then we hightailed it back to the porch. We did nothing but sit on our bums, sip our suds, soak up the sun. And it.was.excellent!

That's right, we turned pagan! We caroused. We celebrated the magic of spring, the magic of our relationship, and the wonderful life we are scraping together. It must be a life worth supporting, for all the work we put into supporting it.

But that's just it -- you can't just work for the life you want. You have to stop and take stock of what you've got, rather than always pining for something you don't yet have. And once you've taken stock, acknowledge, toast, jubilate, and laud everything around you. Friends, family, home...whatever you discover, be just a little more pagan and celebrate!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dirty Girl Scouts Make Good Beer Floats

Your dedicated beer bloggers have been swamped under piles of work that get us out of bed before sunup and keep us working well past decent darkling hours. I keep saying we should be MORE dedicated to our vicarious beer-drinking readers. We’ve had few chances to go out for a beer, let alone go get groceries. Dinner sometimes consisted of whatever could be scrounged from the pantry. Fruit cocktail-Grape Nuts-sautéed onion surprise! Just kidding. We'd never pair fruit cocktail with cereal.

But on a particularly sunny afternoon, I escaped to the fancy li'l mini-mart up the road where they (mercifully) stock lots of craft beer. Elated to be out of the house for the first time in days and perhaps in need of something dramatic to snap me and Zach out of our zombie-like states, I grabbed a pack of Ska Brewing Co.’s Vernal Minthe Stout. The comical psycho Barbie-gone-toga-party image on the front caught my eye. What’s a minthe stout, you say? As did I.

Well, one day, peppermint and spearmint meet up with cocoa and vanilla beans. They have a few drinks, they go to a bar, and then wind up having an orgy with a batch of dark roast malt. And oh what a time they have. It’s probably appeared in a Tom Robbins novel, somewhere in a sloshy, sloppy chapter. You need to be more specific, darling.

When I got to the register, a bit of my whimsy was wearing off. I worried that maybe I was not in a suitable state of mind to buy such an odd beer. Ska is a solid brewer in these here parts. I’ve yet to try something I didn’t like from them. I’m pretty sure their quirky, zesty Molé Stout will become a regular in our fridge every holiday season (assuming they make it again).

I must have looked trepidatious when I put the beer on the counter because the clerk—a wizened old man who needs only a monocle to look like the Monopoly guy with a wicked white goatee (he's named Rich "Uncle" Pennybags. Everyone knows that. Right? Anyone...?)—volunteered his take on the Minthe. “Oh, I’ve had this one. It’s good. Have you had it?”

I admitted I had not but was curious.

“It reminded me of a dirty girl scout,” he said.

I blinked. “You mean like one who hasn’t sold all of her cookies?”

He blinked. Then he laughed. “I mean the drink.” He rambled off the blend of liqueurs and hard liquor that make up the tincture, then we both enjoyed a good laugh. That's it? Not a hearty guffaw? Not a convivial chuckle? Man. Laughing standards have gone down since Uncle Pennybags' day.

I got the Minthe Stout home and lured Zach out of his work chair. It was a bit like coaxing a zombie with the promise of, "Brains. C'mon. Brains." Only I was taunting with, "Beer. C'mon. Beer."


We sat out on our porch looking over the Animas Valley with micro-explosions of green. Spring has come late to our area with a few lingering snow storms, but the blossoms are bursting and the magpies are nesting and there was something in the air Zach and I have not felt for at least two years. I think you call it warmth....

And in that alien-feeling "warmth" we sipped our mint beers, which tasted just like a liquified version of Girl Scout thin mints. We didn't say ewww, but we didn't say, either. Mostly I just made more zombie sounds. It was good, better than you might think beer with mint could be. Ska is reliable like that. Where most beers go wrong with additives like chili, Ska balances it out and make it work. What we found was that the mint comes on super strong while the brew is cold, but let it warm, and the cocoa tones regain a little self-esteem. This helps put the mint in its place and you get a delicious blend of bitter, cooling, and sweet. 

This beer would make the perfect accompaniment to a night on the patio supping desserts. In fact, a few nights later we poured the beer over some vanilla bean ice cream and had beer floats! Now those were YUM. The super-sweet ice cream brought out the bitter cocoa and muted the mint just enough. And as an added bonus you don't usually get with root beer floats, we were drunk when our mugs were drained! Speak for yourself. I wasn't drunk. I was simply floating.

So the lesson may be: you don't have to sell all your cookies in order to reward yourself with a beer. And, don't be afraid of the novelty seasonal, especially when it comes from a brewery you trust! That said, I'd be curious to hear from readers who bought a novelty seasonal that didn't exactly float their boat. Did you find a way to make the beer worth the bucks or did you have to dump it down the sink or ladle it to the dog/cat/parakeet or pawn it off on unsuspecting neighbors/friends? We've never pawned off birdie bogey beers. (Meaning worse than par. Not feeding it to parakeets. Why is sub-par a bad thing everywhere but the golf course, anyway?) Not once. And especially not with a green chile beer that tasted like the bottom of a roasting drum.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Closed for the Winter

How many times can we point out that, despite the drought that's becoming the norm, we live in one of the lushest corners of the world? (Zero -- it's rude to point.) Good beer flows ever more freely than water 'round here. Never mind that Albuquerque is a mecca frequently on top-ten-beer-cities lists (it's numero uno according to, and numero cinco on AMOG's "wort"while vacation stops); Durango and its environs must have one of the densest brewery populations per capita in the world. (Just to clarify, I think he means "dense" in the mass-per-unit-volume way, and not in a these-people-chew-bowling-balls-like-Bubble-Yum way.)

That includes Silverton, a tiny mining town-turned-tourist locale. You think Durango's doing well with four five breweries to its 17,000 folks? Try Silverton's two breweries to its 531 residents.

Yup. This little town at 9300 feet has both the Silverton Brewing Company and the newer Avalanche Brewing Company. And we had tried neither of them. So when family came to town last week and wanted to take the scenic drive north, Jenny and I grabbed our muy-expensivo growler and wondered all the way up the winding road: which brew would come home with us?

The decision was ultimately simple: No beer. (And, for the record, it was not because we are two helpless, habitual dithering debaters. We are, but that's not why we went home with an empty growler.)

See, the Durango & Silverton train doesn't resume service to Silverton until May. Until then, apparently NO ONE visits the tiny town. No one. The main street is boarded up, the lights are off, and you'd be hard pressed to find five hundred people anywhere.I think we saw one gift shop and two cafes/restaurants open for business. In both establishments we entered, the only employee inside asked, "You folks just passing through?" (Which was probably a polite way of asking, Are you idiots lost?)

You should have seen the looks we got when we admitted we were willingly visiting for the afternoon. (Walk up to a stranger, hand them a rubix cube, and demand they solve it, then you'll see a close approximation.)

Unfortunately for us, the brewing companies follow a similar schedule. Silverton Brewing's windows still have painted decorations from Christmas, as well as a proclamation that Oktoberfest beer is now available. At least the wind and the dancing snowflakes made the signs feel seasonally appropriate during our visit. Avalanche's exterior looks remarkably colorful and inviting, but for the sign in the window that declares they're closed until May. (Ah, so that's where the distress signal "Mayday! Mayday!" comes from....)

Our tongues were dry (and our beer-hearts were broken), but that didn't stop us from having a good time. Our little troupe walked the length of the main street from the near end to the far, where the rust-colored Cement Creek runs through town. (I was fascinated by this part, as I had just written about the creek here.) (The rest of us made moronic attempts to push each other into the mustard-yellow river. Oh, Freud would have a field day with my family!) We poked around in the gift shop and gave the smiling attendant someone to chat with for a while (yeah, like my ten-year-old nephew who wanted to know the price of every single coonskin cap and wood-carved doodad). We enjoyed coffee and chili cheese fries under old-school Budweiser mirrors adorning all the walls (not in the gift shop -- he means down the street at a cafe). And, perhaps best of all, we got to enjoy the high-peak scenery while it was still snow-capped and windswept (he means blizzarding and gust-scraped).

Up there, this time of year, you can feel isolated in the best kind of way (like, I'm-running-around-naked-and-no-one-can-see way. No? Ooohh, you meant in a peaceful-I-am-one-with-the-world way. Oops.). Folks visit Silverton by the trainload all summer long, thinking they are stepping back in time, which is ironic because mining towns were never intended to be tourist traps. But now, what they see is what the town presents them (like how to chew bowling balls). We saw Silverton without her makeup on, and the experience was a treat in its own way (yeah, I'm sure that's what Christine Daaé thought when she saw the Phantom of the Opera without his mask on). We might not have found beer during our early April visit, but I think we experienced the town a little closer to reality.

This summer, we'll go back and find out how she compares after a couple high-mountain brews.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Night-Flying Fire

Nothing cheers away the doldrums of winter like power saw racing. Or street bowling. Or build-and-race-your-own-sled competitions. Basically, any of the zany events held during Durango's infamous Snowdown celebration are more than capable of taking the chill from your cockles. Snowdown has been running (hobbling, sashaying, and prancing) for thirty-five years. Like many snowbound civilians, Durangoans turn spring fever into a tradition of getting wild in order to shake off the many layers of winter snow.

This meant Zach and I had over a week's worth of festivities to enjoy. Trivia nights. Doggie and kitty fashion shows. Broom ball. A drag show (which Zach could have won, and not just cuz he would have shaved his slender legs!). No, I would have won because I would NOT have dressed as an overweight Princess Leia. In a bikini. I still can't sleep. A light parade that packed the sidewalks like New Year's in Time Square.

Every bar and every restaurant participated. And all events this year were geek-themed. Audience members and competitors all had to don their best (and worst) nerd-garb. Locals (young, old, sober, and otherwise) took this year's theme very seriously. On any given night, Zach and I saw more knee-high socks, mismatched striped shirts, sweater vests, cow-licks, and thick-rimmed glasses than we care to describe -- and that was before we'd stepped out the front door. She'd never admit it, but Jenny really gets into the spirit of the season.

On the last night of Snowdown, we made our way to what we thought would be the perfect spot to watch the fireworks display. According to the information in the Snowdown calendar -- a professionally printed and bound chunk of paper thick enough to masquerade as a Bible -- the fireworks show was shooting off of a "West Rim Road." Google maps pinpointed this road as the road wrapping around Fort Lewis College, which made perfect sense to us. The college sits on a high plateau overlooking the town. That seemed like a reasonable place to launch a fireworks display. We should have known nothing about Snowdown was "reasonable."

Zach and I parked the car just under the rim, opened the sunroof and waited for the show to start.

Boom! Boom-fizz!

We could hear the fireworks, but we could not see them. The dark sky before us was blank as a chalkboard. Then I spotted a bright flash in the rearview mirror. The firework show was located behind us, somewhere on the other end of town. We debated for a moment about racing across town to get a better view, but after seeing how all other Snowdown events packed in spectators, we sensed that we wouldn't find an adequate parking/viewing spot until well after the show was over.

From where we stood, we could at least see the the tops of the brilliant explosions. And half was better than none. Then the sight of what I thought was a wayward glowing ember drew my attention away from the fireworks. I turned and saw a ball of glowing yellow light drifting above the trees. Zach and I marveled at the flickering little orb, trying to figure out what it was. Then we saw another one waft up out of a nearby backyard. Someone was releasing candle-fed hot air balloons -- something I had not seen since elementary school when a science teacher had students sew up the delicate silk balloons and launch them from the quad.

The fireballs floated gently away, like little stars looking for a home in the sky. When we could no longer tell which balls of light in the sky were man-made or god-made, Zach and I retired to Steamworks, just a few blocks down.

Sheets of corrugated metal jut across the ceiling. Piles of peanut shells carpet the floor. Its seating areas mingle with multiple bars, indoor and outdoor. And from open until close, Steamworks is chockablock full of people. Families drift in for leisurely meals. Coworkers gather, no doubt to blow off steam. Friends flock to watch the game on the flat screens mounted under the rafters.

On this night (like previous visits), I got lost in the maze of gangways and raucous hordes. Zach often has to navigate by nudging my shoulders this way or that. I began to wonder if Steamworks is always full because people can't find their way out.

Truly, though, why would they bother? Steamworks has it all. Great location. Stupendous atmosphere. And of course, an expansive list of masterful craft brews to boot. After a week of splendid geekery capped off with the rarity of observing night-flying fire, we decided to be adventurous with our beer selections.

I picked out the Lizard Head Red, even though I tend to not like reds. I went with a Backside Stout, even though I'm more of a boob man myself. The first sip of the Lizard Head did not pack the bitter punch I expected. Instead, I got a splash of caramel. Zingy. Tangy. Like hearing fireworks while not actually seeing them. The Lizard Head swung like a pendulum. As soon as my taste buds registered "mmmm malty" the Lizard wiggled and wriggled its way over to "zzzinnnggg hops!" Sip after sip, I admired how this beer could balance the scales without ever tipping them.

The Backside Stout, as it turns out, is named for the backside of a mountain, NOT a lady. In either case, it's the stout Guinness could be if it were made with care, attention, quality, and just a pinch of boldness. Instead, Arthur's ale falters in trying to appeal to every palate. Not the Backside. Steamworks' version of the black stuff is velvety smooth and rich in maltiness, with just enough roasted tones to draw your attention. These tones grow as the beer warms, but that's about the only change -- the creaminess sustains itself, and the beer never tastes flat or bland. (Well, maybe not never. But not in the time you'll take to enjoy it.) Just as everyone has different taste in derrieres, not everyone would pick this stout off the roster. That's the risk with going bold. But I believe that this is a brew most people, regardless of personal taste, could at least appreciate.

We leaned back in our high chairs, feeling very satisfied with Snowdown, our beers, and a wintry week of nerdy revelry. Outside, overhead, the fire in the sky showed Mother Nature we were there and ready for spring already.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Hibernating with Grape Juice, or Enter the Eden of Beer

In January, we at Al"brew"querque (are forced to) continue our tradition of sipping beers in different locations. Jenny undertook her semiannual abandonment trip to Vermont for her graduate program, while I (refused to come along) stayed home. "Home sweet home" was, to be exact, our third place of residence in four semesters, which at least mixes up the beer selection.

And what a selection it is! We've had no problem waxing prosaic about the Durango brewing culture, with four microbreweries within fifteen minutes of our door. With all these choices, deciding on a six-pack to take home should be difficult. Right? (Right!)

Wrong. (Oh. Frown. I hate being wrong. Meh!) After the razzmatazz performance of Molé Stout on our taste buds, I seized the plastic handles on Ska Brewing's latest seasonal, Hibernal Vinifera Stout. This stout is best summed up by Ska's own website:

"Who the fu*k put grapes in my beer?"

I wish I hadn't read the can first, because now I'll never know if I would have discerned grape flavors without the aluminum cheat sheet (a lesson for all would-be cheaters). But I swear to all things that grow on vines (pumpkins... cucumbers...), this beer really does have a sense of grapes about it (you mean like how Natalie Portman has a sense of swans about her in Black Swan?). I don't taste the fruit in the liquid itself, which has the delightful fullness of being cask-aged without tasting like you just licked the inside of a barrel -- a feat rarer than finding spare barrels to lick. (This is why I can't leave you alone.) But in the air that fills the bubbles of this brew, I found the scent of grape juice or a hint of grape soda. Hibernal Vinifera tastes like grape juice smells.

It's good the whole way through, too (like Burl Ives), unlike so many gimmicky beers that intrigue on first sip and gag by the end. Ska has got this additive concept down. Hibernal Vinifera wows at the start (like a stripper), maintains its virtues throughout (like a virgin), dances the tango and the waltz with any food you pair it with (I tried it with a green chile burrito and with cookies), and polishes off just this side of sweet. (Folks, he was home alone, so please feel free to picture him literally cutting the rug with a beer in hand and a burrito snapped between his teeth like a long-stem rose.)

This brew made the lonely cold Colorado evenings bearable, until my darling could steal away from the oppressive regime heavy scheduling in Vermont and sign in to video chat. Then, I was pleased to tip my can to her and enjoy Ska's latest with the best company around.

While Zach was in our living room waltzing around with a six pack, I was trudging through several feet of snow in subzero temperatures down the steep hill separating Vermont College's campus from the groovy Victorian town of Montpelier. (Swinging 1860s, here we come!)

That's right, groovy Victorian. Montpelier, also the state capitol of Vermont, is what would have happened to the real Victorians if left in isolation -- like the marsupials of Australia. Some features go untouched, while others undergo bizarre-yet-inevitable mutations. Meticulous layers of fancy clothing with lots of buttons, fasteners, and hooks are replaced by North Face outerwear (with lots of clasps, buttons, and fasteners). Buggies turn to Subarus. And the old religious snobbery which would have disdained alcoholic beverages transforms into elitist snobbery for locally microbrewed. 

That said, I should also point out that Durango and Montpelier share this marsupial Victorianism.  

Down the hill I journeyed, taking my roommate, Jenn, with me. (Yes, they dared to room two Jenns together. Oh the hijinx that ensue...) We were on our way to the Three Penny Taproom, a vast menagerie of microbrews from around the state and around the country.

I was particularly excited to visit the Taproom because all the previous residencies proved too jam-packed with events and lectures to allow me enough time to go and enjoy a drink there. (Okay, there had been time to drink, but never enough time to sober up before my brains were needed again.) Also, I had promised to perform my famous flavor-profile test on Jenn so that she could drink a beer that wouldn't make her gag. It had been a while since I could profile anyone who said they didn't like beer, and I was a little nervous that maybe I'd lost my knack for it.

Into the Taproom we went, and there we froze. The Taproom was loaded with real plants. Compared to the barren, icy streets, the Taproom felt like a blooming garden or a thriving greenhouse. Crossing the threshold was an almost Biblical experience -- I had unwittingly sauntered into the Eden of Beer.

And besides the thick fronds and plentiful vines chewing into the cramped quarters, Jenn and I had to maneuver around all the jolly people, mostly men whose quasi-Saxon facial hair bristled out into the remaining scant snips of elbow room.  

Shuffle-stepping up to the bar, Jenn and I studied the chalkboard with a super-long and super-detailed list of beers, including who brewed them, their ABV figures, and the states they hailed from. I first asked Jenn if any of the titles caught her fancy. When she put up her hands and shook her head, saying she did not know a brown ale from a lager, I quickly performed my flavor profile wherein I ask a very short list of comparative questions. What do you like better, chocolate or coffee? Bread or pastries? Nuts or berries? And so on. 

In a matter of seconds, I determined that Jenn would love a warm, aromatic Belgian beer. So I ordered the Vermont-made McChouffe "blushing" Belgian brown ale. To her delight, it came in a wine-like glass and looked and smelled much like a wine. The ruby tint was seductive and when she gave me a sip, I delighted in the cozy, brandy-like flavor. Jenn enjoyed her beer and remarked (as many do) that she had no idea beer could taste like that.

I settled on the Hill Farmstead Earl oatmeal coffee stout, also local out of Vermont. It was strong and roasty. The presence of oats was boisterous and delicious, tinged with a bitter coffee aftertaste. The stout finished off kind of mellow, like a rockin' Metallica song that just fades out for the next track -- which is not a fault. A stout like that is just being polite to your palate, clearing the way and settling down so you can enjoy the next drink.

And enjoy we did, squeezed in between the beards, fronds, and vines. I kicked back knowing my flavor profile skills had not faded, and in a few days, I would be going home to rescue my love from his solo hibernation and lonely malt-waltzing.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Railroaded at the Brewpub

Jenny says that if you want to get a seat at the Durango Brewing Company, you better get there by... oh, 1989 ought to do. I haven't told her yet that such punctuality would guarantee a year-long wait, since DBC has only been concocting since 1990. Besides, we showed up there Friday night about 6:45 and still claimed a table and two stools (yeah, but only after edging around the crowds, squeezing into corners, and forging our way to the bar through a blizzard of people!).

This place is a bit out of the way, by Durango standards. It's on Main Street, but up north out of the downtown district most frequented by visitors. And the brewery's ambiance is pretty cool (especially if you are a gunslinger and former train-robber who traded guns for skis). It has the wood and warmth of a ski lodge in a warehouse. In tune with the logo's steam locomotive theme, one wall by the bar is old red boxcar siding with stenciled white letters and the old Denver & Rio Grande Western logos. (Real old boxcars or well-approximated faux interior design? Heck if I know.) The exposed rafters are filled with black-painted insulation that kind of looks like an open coal tender. And there's at least nine of their own beers on tap.

Why stick with the standards that we can pick up in bottles at the grocery store any day? We pounced on two seasonal beers (like cats on string or the white disc of flashlight light). I claimed the Winter Ale (like a viking who claims most things with an ax), a dark dark brown brew with the warmth and spices of so many ideal winter drinks. The roasted malts make this beer hearty and satisfying to the stomach, while it also has a caramelized (but not sugary) hint around the edges. Think of a rich savory dinner with a candied glaze (pineapple upside down cake!), like roast ham or sauteed onions (oh, we have different ideas of dinner, I guess). The beer doesn't taste like any meal in particular, but it has the same delectable balance. As it warms, it maintained its best qualities (unlike most people). Perfect for a winter brew!

The Purgatory Ale had nothing distinct (she leans away at a skeptical angle) -- and when that includes no noticeable faults, that makes for a steady drink. It is full and smooth (not in a Miller way) front to back (wait this sounds like a description of me...). A straight-up good beer, even if it doesn't cause any surprises. It's the kind of beer you would go on a second date with, but you certainly wouldn't expect anything kinky afterward (While that sounds like an accurate description of Purgatory the place, it does not paint an accurate picture of Purgatory the beer. Maybe Zach's been mixing the primary colors on his taste "palette" again. I thought the Purgatory glowed like autumn gold. It smelled bready and fresh. And the taste was like hot-butter biscuits with a touch of marmalade. In other words, delicious!)

With so many seasonal and limited beers on the menu, we wished we could justify sticking around and drinking the evening away (DWI = Drink Without Inhibition, right?). Instead, we opted to take home a growler (no, he does not mean one of the red-cheeked and rugged mountain men hunched over the bar who growl when you try to place your order). We asked the waitress if we could sample the Helles lager and the Ghost Train pumpkin beer to aid our decision. The Helles is a fine enough pilsner in the German/Czech vein of yeasty, flavorful lagers (again, not that watered-down gnat's piss that parades as mass-produced lager). It has the right bready introduction with a touch of bitterness... but it doesn't delight in the finish like the truly exceptional pilsners of the world.  All the action is up front with this beer. (Perhaps I ought to defer to the guy who lived in the land of pilsners for a year, but to me the Helles was yeasty, but also exotically floral, tasting a bit like magnolias. Please don's ask why or how I know what those taste like.)

The Ghost Train, however, is unique (starting with its poltergeist passengers!). I've tasted many pumpkin beers (like a grown-up Charlie Brown), and all of them lack in some way, as if the brewer were afraid to go full-out gourd on the brew (dear Gourd, be merciful). The Ghost Train takes the flavors and embraces them. I can't say it tastes particularly of pumpkin (oh gourd, I was worried) -- have you ever eaten just a spoonful of Libby's? (not something to admit that on the internet, by the way) -- but it has the spices in conjunction with the pumpkin that most of us crave in the autumn and winter. That last part is key to this beer: it doesn't taste like a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks, but more like a pumpkin pie that's just as appropriate after Christmas as it was before Halloween. The spices are tingly and magical (like reindeer droppings). (The beer actually reminds us both of the Molé Stout from Ska Brewing in the way the unexpected zing of spices play with the tongue.) And unlike many novelty beers (and unlike most reindeer droppings), this one tastes like it will be good the whole way down -- no tiring of the flavor midway into a pint!

So we ordered a growler of the Ghost-juice* and disembarked from the DBC brewin' locomotive.

*Buyer beware: Durango is notoriously expensive in every way, including pints up to and above $4.00. (The "special" this Friday night was $3 and $4 pints.) And many of us from outside Durango are used to growlers (64-oz take-home jugs) costing anywhere from $12 to $20, reasonable enough for four pints of beer. So imagine our shock when the bill came with the growler -- thirty eight dollars!!!

At least the jug is pretty cool. And we made damn sure we enjoyed each and every drop of that pumpkin beer over the next two nights. Whatever the cost, the beer is truly delicious. And it may just be magical, after all: it turned our vegetable stir-fry into a gourmet experience, just by being so blasted expensive!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Feral in the Barrel

With all the rush-and-tumble and rip-a-gifting of the holidays winking by faster than reindeer over rooftops, Zach and I took a few (okay, more like 90) (oh-KAY, more like 128) selfish minutes to enjoy good beers and good friends at the La Cumbre Brewing Co. in Albuquerque.

We are, after all, two firm believers that auld acquaintances should not be forgot, regardless of the length of lang or syne. (Or cosine. Or tangent. Math jokes!)

I was first to arrive and claim one of the precious few open tables. Even at three o'clock on a lazy post-holiday Friday, La Cumbre is not just busy, but bursting at its industrial seams. For reasons I do no know, film director John Houston was driving the universe that day, which meant that a series of comical mix-ups, misunderstandings, delays, and misfired texts would cause me to spend the following hour alone, defending my table and its vacant chairs from swooping social vultures.

At last, Zach arrived! After spending the day helping his mother schlep bulk baking ingredients out of bulk-buying stores to her North Valley bakery, he was more than ready to enjoy a craft brew. Not long after he sidled up to the table and shooed away a jovial bench-stealing buzzard (tougher than it sounds), our auld friends Gabe and Leighanna arrived. I say auld not because they are auld folks, or because our friendship has lasted a decade or three (although we surely hope it does), but because it had been such a lang syne since we had last seen them.

While spending the last year in Ireland, Zach and I enjoyed a pre-Christmas getaway to Germany to see the twinkling and sizzling splendors that make up the Weihnachtsmärkte, or Christmas markets. Gabe and Leighanna, who were studying abroad in Germany for the year, took the train to Cologne to meet us for a day and a night out on the town. The four of us had a blast, but had only been in touch online ever since.

We ordered our drinks, reminisced about the glühwein (said like glue-vine, though it tastes too wonderful to be anything like glue in wine), and got up-to-date on each other's lives and job situations. We were just about to tear into the bad economy making job searches tougher than usual when our waitress -- a dark-haired Sheryl Crow, I kid you not -- delivered our drinks.

I got LCBC's 2nd Anniversary Stout, a seasonal brewed to celebrate their second year in business. How could I not partake of the celebration? I love supporting local businesses! And, the bulletin broadcasting the beer's flavor profile and brew process bragged about 1700 pounds of British malts, countless gallons of molasses, 100 pounds of dextrose, and an "astronomical" quantity of hops. The bulletin also noted how the the beer was left to mellow out in Pinot Noir and Syrah wine barrels for about three months. My curiosity was piqued, but my tastebuds were ultimately assaulted.

When the stout arrived in a snifter, I knew I was in for something strong, but I still nearly choked on my very first sip. That dark and sultry stout had wreaking wine-breath, worse than my Aunt Mable. (I don't actually have an Aunt Mable, but if I did, I'm sure she'd be a wino.) The wine vapors inherited from the barrels overwhelmed all other flavors leaving the stout tasting dry and almost antiseptic. Clearly that beer had gone feral in the barrel. I finally had to quit sipping and leave the beer alone. Warmed to room temperature, the beer's overpowering aroma and zing of wine-breath dissipated, opening up a comforting yet complex palate of sweet cocoa and bitter raisin flavors, which is to say, a very enjoyable beer! (Meanwhile, she stared longingly at all of our drinks, wishing for a two-foot straw so she could delicately steal sips from our pints.)

Now, you're all probably saying, "Jenny, dear -- Raisinets are not complex." But should you find yourself sipping a snifter of Anniversary Stout -- comfortably cooled, and less crazy at room temperature -- you'll see, or taste, exactly what I mean.

Meanwhile, across the table, Zach was trying to fish the flavors out of another of La Cumbre's seasonals, the Trout. She makes it sound like I struggled to find something to enjoy. On the contrary, the fishing here was much more like a beautiful day out by the lake -- mild, chill, relaxing, and just warm enough. The Trout plays on its more famous (and decidedly fishier) English counterpart, but this English-style pale ale is much prouder of its flavors. It has its hops, but they don't kick in your teeth like in so many American-style hooligans IPAs enjoy doing. Instead, they impart a delightful citrus profile; not so much bitter lemons as sweetly tart tangerines. The grassiness of some pale ales wasn't to be found here, and the beer was just as enjoyable at the end as at the beginning. The Brits know how to spend a day-long session in the pub, and just like a day spent dangling empty hooks in the lake, I could have enjoyed the Trout from noon to night.

Just before the sun went down, our happy quadra-quaffing group became a quintet when Thomas, another auld friend, beer-lover, and local coffee roaster, breezed through La Cumbre's doors. Another round was ordered, but because John Houston was still at the wheel of the universe, I wound up with a sample of the Hot Shots Rauch. Essentially, a lot of words were misunderstood when the new waiter (who looked decidedly less like Sheryl Crow, for better or for worse) asked what I wanted. I thought he asked to see my ID. When I said I would have to get it out of my wallet, he somehow heard the words "Rauch" and "sample." (Hold your fingers ID-width apart. Then hold them sample-glass-height apart. You'll begin to see how this happened.) Lucky for me it was just a sample, too. The Rauch turned out to be too much for my tastebuds after the feral-barrel stout. Touted as smokey, bready, and full of apples, the Rauch reminded me of the gravy-makin' Liquid Smoke ale we'd sampled in San Antonio. This beer was smokey, but to put it more accurately, and to quote Leighanna when she sipped the sampler, "It tastes like someone put their sparkler out in it." (You mean it tasted like extinguished patriotism? Oh... like sulfur. Got it.)

The waiter seemed all but demoralized when I told him I did not want a full pint of Rauch. He assured me that the brewers had worked extra hard to make those flavors super-subtle. I assured him that the only Hot Shot capable of saving my tongue from the Rauch's pungent singe was a cool and refreshing South Peak Pilsner -- one of LCBC's rock-solid year-round beer selections! He obliged, and with beers in hand, the five of us enjoyed some more "quint"essential quaffing!